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Conductor Christoph Eschenbach begins NSO tenure with diverse inaugural season

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; C10

Christoph Eschenbach is starting his National Symphony Orchestra tenure with a bit of a bang. His inaugural season bears a personal stamp, and a good balance of repertory standards (all of Beethoven's piano concertos) and new works (a world premiere by Peter Lieberson for the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's inauguration). It also offers big-name soloists who have long-standing professional relationships with the conductor -- Renée Fleming, Lang Lang, Christian Tetzlaff, Gil Shaham, Radu Lupu -- and who offered personal statements, for the brochure, about how much they love him. It's a nice touch.

Eschenbach, leading 10 of the 24 weeks of classical programming, is offering tastes of a number of his specialties. There's Mahler: the Fourth and Fifth symphonies and "Kindertotenlieder" (part of a season-long emphasis on orchestral song, starting with Fleming singing Strauss's "Four Last Songs" at the opening gala). There's contemporary music: He's leading the first NSO performances of works by Matthias Pintscher ("Hérodiade-Fragmente") and Osvaldo Golijov ("She Was Here," the composer's orchestration of four Schubert songs, with Dawn Upshaw), as well as the American premiere of Augusta Read Thomas's "Juggler in Paradise," her Third Violin Concerto, an NSO co-commission performed by an Eschenbach protege, Jennifer Koh. There's his own instrument, the piano: He will perform the Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 himself.

Eschenbach also is interested in crossing disciplines, evidenced by the NSO's contributions to the Kennedy Center's "maximum INDIA" festival, which include Anoushka Shankar in a sitar concerto -- though the other two India programs are even more exciting, featuring Messiaen's "Turangalila-Symphonie" and Zemlinsky's "Lyric Symphony," "Indian" by virtue of its Rabindranath Tagore texts, with Matthis Goerne as one of the soloists.

There are a lot of other new faces this season: Six conductors are making their NSO debuts, including Gianandrea Noseda (leading Lupu in Beethoven's Third Concerto); Xian Zhang, the former associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic; Susanna Malkki (with Mahler's 10th Symphony and Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, with Garrick Ohlsson); and John Axelrod, another Eschenbach protege, who will conduct an American program of Barber, Bernstein and Kernis. It all adds up, on paper, to a promising new beginning.

The Kennedy Center is also giving the spotlight to chamber music, which takes its turn this year with its own "Chamber Music Across America" series featuring a number of notable American artists (Pamela Frank, Jonathan Biss, the Miró Quartet). The series highlight is a set of three concerts in three days that each bring together two high-profile ensembles, starting with a joint recital by chamber music royalty: the Emerson String Quartet and the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio.

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